A gelatinous cube, oozing and slurping with evil intent, has become the latest threat to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Last week, after trawling through depositions about dangers posed by Lizardfolk, phantom funghi and godforsaken creatures that go by the name worgs, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ban on Dungeons and Dragons in Wisconsin jails. Yes, Dungeons and Dragons.
For me the game conjures up images of men whose ponytails are beginning to gray, probably gathering to play in their mothers’ basements. But maybe I should not judge so harshly — many players seem a bit more sophisticated. During my semester abroad in Berlin this fall, I encountered some heavily tattooed German students who meet weekly to play Dungeon and Dragons while listening to Wagner.
Yet the saddest aspect of the court’s ruling comes in the chief argument put forward by prison authorities in Singer v. Raemisch. Apparently, Dungeons and Dragons, with its focus on escaping from dank, faux-medieval dungeons, might just encourage Wisconsin’s prisoners to fantasize about escape. Clearly, before Dungeons and Dragons was invented, no prisoner in U.S. custody had ever considered escaping.
When the distinction between fantasy and reality is eroded, society can become paranoid. The prison authorities, after all, are trying to police thought. If Dungeons and Dragons encourages thought-crime, what other works will next provoke the censors wrath?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Juvenile delinquent male, 13, abets death row jail break of Harley Davidson gang leader and deviant hippogriff. Suspected of carrying a concealed magic wand.
The Wind in the Willows: Transvestite Toad, age 5, serving sentence for Grand Theft Auto, seduces jailor’s daughter. Good argument against employing women in prisons.
The Odyssey: Eastern European male, approximately 35 years old, escapes imprisonment in a cave by clinging to the underbelly of a ram. Particularly unsuitable reading matter for sex offenders.
The Bible: Middle-Eastern male, 33, becomes gang leader by promising “freedom for prisoners” and “release from the chains of sin.” Gang members bond through ritually intoxicating themselves during mock vampiric practices, and initiation occurs through simulated drowning. (The Department of Justice has asked us to make clear that there’s nothing wrong with simulated drowning.) The prequel features an entire chapter called “Exodus.”
The absurdity of this ruling, however, should not distract from the brutality of the attitude that underlies it: the assumption that the primary purpose of prison is to punish, rather than to rehabilitate. If prison officers genuinely believe that the gruesome chambers depicted in Dungeons and Dragons are comparable to the prison cells they guard, then they are running prisons of which a 21st-century nation should be ashamed.
But this ruling doesn’t come as a surprise. Prison practices in most western nations are organized around the need to assert the retributive power of the state — imprisonment entails a highly-performative exercise in humiliation. In most states in the U.S., even prisoners awaiting trial are obliged to wear jumpsuits — instantly categorizing them into the criminal class, violating the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Limiting personal expression often includes limiting the freedom to assemble. One argument put forward to ban Dungeons and Dragons was that it allows prisoners to spend intense amounts of times playing together in small groups — an intimacy that apparently could lead to gang violence. But those who seek to increase the power of the police and prison system emphasize that they’re fighting a dangerous enemy — they repeatedly insist on the anti-social structure of prison gangs and the ability of members to communicate even with minimal contact. I find it difficult to imagine that David “DC” Cervantes of Nuestra Familia, who allegedly controls his minions using cabbalistic letter-codes, different arrangements of his red bandana and signs traced in his own urine, would prefer to pass his orders by whispering, “I am Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light… You’re surrounded by ochre jellies.”
Certainly, suspected gang members, lifers and violent criminals need to be separated and closely watched. But obsessive segregation of criminals also isolates them further from society, increasing sociological difficulties and entrenching bunker mentality. The less human a prisoner is allowed to feel, the harder it is for him or her to readjust to society upon release.
Prisoners in the United States, on average, spend more time in solitary confinement than anywhere else in the western world. The U.S. also has the highest rate of recidivism, at 60 percent. Norway, by contrast, has the lowest levels of solitary confinement, and the lowest rates of recidivism. Norway is also one of a minority of countries in which prisoners can vote, one of the most direct ways of ensuring that prisoners can still maintain a stake in the society to which they hope to return.
And I bet they’re allowed to play Dungeons and Dragons, too.
Kate Maltby is a senior in Saybrook College.